Constitution Sunday: “Publius,” The Federalist I [Alexander Hamilton]

“Publius,” The Federalist I [Alexander Hamilton]

Independent Journal (New York), October 27, 1787

Following are excerpts from the Federalist I, written by Alexander Hamilton:

“The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences, nothing less than the existence of the union, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire, in many respects, the most interesting in the world. It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis, at which we are arrived, may with propriety be regarded as the æra in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act, may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.”

“On the other hand, it will be equally forgotten, that the vigour of government is essential to the security of liberty; that, in the contemplation of a sound and well informed judgment, their interest can never be separated; and that a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people, than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us, that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism, than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics the greatest number have begun their career, by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing Demagogues and ending Tyrants.”

Hamilton, writing under the pen name Publius, made clear in the Federalist I that he was very much aware of the gravity of the juncture America was at in drafting and approving the Constitution. To Hamilton, how America would emerge from the debates surrounding the Constitution would answer the question as to whether men were truly capable of devising a system of government that would empower men to control their destinies, not just survive by luck.

In framing the government, and balancing the government’s role in the lives of its citizens, Hamilton makes a point worth remembering: there is more often a dangerous ambition behind populism than there is behind the government attempting to operate in an efficient, zealous capacity. Often, the reverse is assumed, that a demagogue or populist should not be the recipient of so much doubt as the government itself. There must be a balance between these two principles, however. Government should not have a carte blanche or a presumption of proper action, but it should be bestowed by its citizens with a dignity and nobility.

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